Transgender meets God

Debate about inclusive language reaches the Trinity

“God’s pronouns are they, these and theirs” was a tweet as US Anglicans recently debated whether to make such terms official.

The push for inclusive language in liberal churches has reached the Trinity as a motion to revise their official prayer book (which defines their doctrine) passed at the General Convention of US Anglicans, known as The Episcopal Church.

Some argue for change because of the experience of survivors of abuse.

The motion seeks to “utilize inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity” and also “faithful adherence to the historic rites of the Church Universal”. However, editing the Prayer Book is likely to follow after new liturgies (the written order of church services) have been created.

“Expansive language is a broadening of language we use to talk about God,” Ruth Meyers, Dean of Academic Affairs at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in San Francisco, told a press conference. She chairs the committee that will revise the church’s Prayer Book. “This is not about eliminating language about God the Father and Jesus the Son, but expanding the language and images used to describe God.”

Referring to Genesis 1:1, she argues that “everyone should see themselves as made in the image and likeness of God.” This will include changes to make gender-fluid people welcome, and the older feminist argument that God can be called both male and female.

Some argue for change because of the experience of survivors of abuse. As one tweet stated: “Women who were abused by a man. They should NOT have to read the masculine pronouns for God, their creator, EVER. That does not support healing.”

It’s a “big tent” approach that will leave some traditional language about God, but make it one one approach among many.

A common approach among liberal Christians is to use the word “God” as a replacement for a pronoun. So phrases like “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins. His mercy endures for ever” becomes “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins. God’s mercy endures for ever.”

However, some of the expansionist language advocates will rule out words like “Lord” and “King” as unacceptable.

… there is a great deal of imagery for God that crosses traditional gender boundaries.

Those who want simply to maintain and defend the Bible text can still ask: have the advocates for change got a point? Do any of their suggestions make sense? But the starting point will remain the fact that, from Genesis 1:1 onwards, the text of the original languages the Bible is written in consistently uses “he” for God, and “he”, obviously, for Jesus in the New Testament.

Some cheeky conservatives wanting to maintain the Bible’s language cited the transgender movement’s own idea that people should be able to choose their own pronouns in the Episcopalian debate. One commented: “The great irony of the debate over Prayer Book revision at #gc79 is that those in favor of gender-neutral pronouns for God believe that we should get to choose our own pronouns but that God should not enjoy that same privilege.”

While the Bible’s pronouns are clear, there is a great deal of imagery for God that crosses traditional gender boundaries. And all Christians can respect a call to be faithful to Scripture, and to read and use all of it. (However, the point needs to be made that the majority of Bible imagery for God is masculine.)

One of the leaders of the push for  “expansionist” language is Wil Gafney, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, who describes herself as a “womanist” theologian.

She suggests we examine a verse like Deuteronomy 32:18. The NIV version is “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” The ESV renders it as: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth,” with a footnote that “bore you” could be “fathered.”

Depending on the interpreter’s choice, this is a female image of God or, at least, a double-gendered one.

Or take Job 38:8 and 38:29 – “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb,” and “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens?”

Gafney’s conclusion is that the only reproductive organ God is given in the Bible is a womb. This seems to be reasonable; the most ardent advocates of God as father will not cite any phallic imagery, as there is none.

God can indeed choose his pronouns of choice.

In her book, Womanist Midrash, Gafney asks: “Is gendered God-language, simply an artefact of  certain languages, without any religious meaning? How shall we translate it, and why? Should we tell the reader what the text says and why?”

These are good questions, especially when talking about the Old Testament – which, as a biblical Hebrew specialist, Gafney does.

The weakness in her argument comes when taking into account the way the New Testament adds to our perspective of God and gendered language. Here God through the Spirit fathers a son, and Jesus is that Son. This is the language and, in the case of Jesus, the gender in which God has appeared to us.

We should take into account the feminine imagery that God has used in the Old Testament, and which Jesus adds to in the New Testament  (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Matthew 23:37).

Doing so modifies reading back into the godhead our experiences of gender. For whatever is feminine is known and loved by God, just as the masculine. At a time when using a particular form of pronoun is taken by some in our community as a requirement to indicate respect for them, we need to be as careful and nuanced in our understanding of Scripture as possible.

God can indeed choose his pronouns of choice. But let’s talk about him, using the sometimes female imagery that Scripture contains.

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